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I once attended a writing workshop by a popular, big-name comics writer in the 1990s who revealed a Dirty Secret that’s haunted me ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but he admitted that writers of corporate-owned superheroes rely heavily on fans’ pre-existing attachment to those characters. Obviously, the extent to which he was able to speak for his peers is questionable, but the implication was that he felt he could sneak sloppy work by readers, confident that their love for the characters would keep them buying the comics anyway.
Please please please don’t think that I’m accusing Duane Swierczynski of that. I have no reason to think that he’s doing anything less than his best work. It’s just that that Dirty Secret occasionally pops back into my head as I’m reading comics I’m not enjoying about characters that I like. And the New 52 Birds of Prey is one of those comics.
I discovered Black Canary through Green Arrow. I’ve been a Robin Hood fan my whole life, so it was an easy jump to digging Green Arrow, but I admit that I didn’t care for Black Canary at first. My intro to these characters was all post-Mike Grell, and all I knew about Canary was that – early in Grell’s Green Arrow run – she accused Green Arrow of cheating on her and left him. At the time I was learning about this history, there was a huge debate among Green Arrow fans about how justified Black Canary’s complaints were. But either way, Green Arrow’s reputation as a philanderer stuck. Eventually, it became apparent to me that – whether or not he’d been that way before – Green Arrow’s writers now considered commitment-phobia and infidelity to be important parts of his character. I began to lose interest in him and gave Black Canary a second look instead. I checked out Birds of Prey and dug it.
It wasn’t until Gail Simone began writing the series that I actually fell in love with Black Canary, though. Simone was obviously gaga over the character and her enthusiasm was infectious. She wrote the Last Black Canary Hostage Story and turned the character into an ass-kicking heroine worthy of leading the Justice League. Unfortunately, Black Canary was a victim of her own success.
She became leader of the Justice League in Brad Meltzer’s relaunch of Justice League of America, but she wasn’t written as an effective one. The new series lacked focus, which made the team – and, by extension, Black Canary as its leader – seem sloppy and distracted too. It was about that same time that she left Birds of Prey to marry and co-star in her own series with Green Arrow. That went pretty well for a while, especially with Cliff Chiang drawing the first six issues, but I also loved the focus on the extended Green Arrow “family.” Then Andrew Kreisberg took over as writer and immediately got rid of the supporting cast, introduced major marital problems, and had Black Canary doing stupid crap like creating a supervillain by accidentally ruining a poor sap’s life through the careless, amateurish use of her sonic scream. Between that and Justice League, I remembered that just because I like a character, it doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy every story about her.
I say all that to say this about Duane Swierczynski’s work: he’s not ruining Black Canary. I love that he has her leading the Birds of Prey now that Barabara Gordon is starring in Batgirl. I also love the moral complexity he’s given her and new character Starling. The full details haven’t been revealed yet, but Black Canary is wanted for murder and I am A-Okay with that. Whether she killed someone or not (she mentions wanting to clear her name, so probably not), I have enough trust that — if I were to stick with the series — I’d be on her side when all is made clear. In the meantime, I love that she’s willing to get herself dirty while doing this job.
I also like the inclusion of Katana (a character I’ve never cared about, but whom Swierczynski plays with just the right amount of doubt concerning her sanity) and Poison Ivy (her dialogue is simultaneously creepy and seductive, as it should be). There’s a lot that the new Birds of Prey is doing right, including Jesus Saiz’s art. What it isn’t doing right though is making me care about any of it.
That’s what reminds me of that Dirty Secret from earlier. It’s not that I think Swierczynski isn’t trying; he’s writing a perfectly acceptable superhero story and I wouldn’t in a million years compare it to what I saw happen with Meltzer or Kreisberg’s times with Black Canary. But there’s no weight to it. Sure, lives are at stake and at one point one of them is even Black Canary’s, but the only reason that the Birds of Prey seem to be engaging the bad guys that they’ve spent six issues fighting so far (with still no resolution) is because those are bad guys and engaging them is what good guys do. The villain Choke is a unique and interesting concept, but it feels like he or she was the initial idea and the heroes are incidental. Anyone could be fighting this bad guy and you’d have roughly the same story.
There’s nothing personal in it, and that’s hard to swallow after experiencing Batgirl and Batwoman; two series that are all about the personal stakes their main characters have in the stories they’re telling. Following that, “perfectly acceptable” isn’t good enough. It used to be. There was a time when the principle of the Dirty Secret would’ve worked on me and I would have just kept buying Birds of Prey because I like the characters and it wasn’t actively offensive. But when there are truly great series for me to read instead, that time is over.